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Queerama: A Century of Gay Representation

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Black Narcissus, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947

Sheffield Doc/Fest is just around the corner. The first programme announcements were made last month, creating a buzz for the already highly anticipated annual documentary film extravaganza. Daisy Asquith's Queerama will kick off proceedings with its world premiere at Sheffield City Hall on Friday 9 June, marking 50 years since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, which began the slow process of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK.

The film explores gay rights over the last century and features archive footage from the British Film Institute (BFI) to chart the chronology of gay representation. The footage dates back as far as 1919, portraying an emotive quest for equal opportunities. Queerama establishes historical context through its sexuality-based social commentary and continues the conversation right up to modern day with its discussions of contemporary gay culture.

The BAFTA-nominated director has made a total of 25 films. Her previous work includes The Decision (1999), and investigation of at-risk youth in the north-east for Channel 4, and the highly-acclaimed Britain's Holocaust Survivors (2013). Queerama is the perfect fit for this year's Doc/Fest with its themes of resistance and change. I caught up with Daisy to find out more about her latest project.

What motivated you to make this documentary?

The story is about gay rights and desires over the last century. It's an extraordinary topic and it is beautifully expressed by the BFI archive. I think people have forgotten what a short time ago it was that homosexuality was illegal.

The film marks 50 years since the Sexual Offences Act. Although it is often credited with decriminalising homosexuality it didn't simply eradicate prejudice. Are we are still working towards full equality?

We are absolutely still on the journey to full equality. I think until attitudes change towards gay and queer people we will remain on that journey. Take transgender people. They do not have equal rights in modern day society. Until things like this are sorted, we are not finished fighting for equal opportunities.

How did you select the archive footage used in the film?

Simon McCallum at the BFI had done a huge amount of work preparing a gay strand in the BFI Mediatheques. I also had two brilliant researchers, Campbell X and Mike Nicholls, who are both also documentary filmmakers. They spent many hours - days and nights - trawling through the archives, but they did say it was the best job they have ever had. We decided on what footage would be used between us. It was a collaborative effort and team decision.

Did you immediately know how you wanted to structure the film or did a style develop as you worked?

I knew I wanted to structure the footage thematically. We knew we were going to do away with the order in which things were filmed - I made that decision fairly early on - but the film still has a sense of the chronology of the century passing.

There's a mixture of footage. There's some news, some fiction, there's some documentary and there's some home videos in there. There are also music video-type sequences, which evoke the chosen themes such as sex, gender or falling in love. The archive footage stands alone and is what creates the narrative structure, but the footage is complemented by the lyrics of John Grant.

John Grant's music is featured throughout the film, he's set to perform at the premiere and you've announced you're making an entirely separate documentary about the musician. With all that in mind, his place on the film's soundtrack seems an important inclusion. Can you tell us more about your interest in John and his links to Queerama?

Yes, he'll be performing three songs for us at the end of the screening, which is a huge treat. I've got a feature documentary about him coming out later in the year called Greatest Motherfucker. I've been making the feature doc with him for two years. We've made friends in that time and he patiently puts up with me following him around with a camera, so it was kind of the obvious thing to do to ask him to give me his music for this project.

I also very much wanted to do another archive film. I've made one before with the music of Bill Nelson called Velorama. It came out a few years ago and is a documentary celebrating a century of the bicycle. I wanted to make a film to mark this anniversary [of the Sexual Offences Act] and John just seemed like the perfect person to work on the soundtrack. The music used is from across his three records.

We are confirming another artist for the soundtrack, but I'm not allowed to say who yet. It's very exciting. It's a female voice.

What was it like working with such an array of creative contributors on this project?

Well, Campbell and Mike are both brilliant filmmakers in their own right. Campbell made the film Stud Life and [the web drama series] Different For Girls, and Mike recently made a feature documentary about his friend Boy George for the BBC, so they were both perfectly positioned to look at the archives. Also between us someone is gay, someone is bisexual and someone is non-binary. We had a broad range of queer experiences represented in our creative team. We all pulled the film in our own direction according to our own experiences, because there is no way that you can just throw all queer people together and represent them that way. It meant a lot to me to have such a diverse team to make sure we could represent people as well as possible.

You completed Queerama really quickly. How does it feel for the film to be finished and opening this year's Doc/Fest with its themes of resistance and change?

It was crazy. We didn't start on the film until the start of the year and the BFI only said 'yes' in March. I've never done anything so quickly, but it was really enjoyable.

To be the opening film is absolutely brilliant and we are really excited about it. We are planning a hell of a party for afterwards. I'm so grateful to Sheffield Doc/Fest and proud of them for having a focus on disobedience this year and making us central to it. It's a good sign for the festival.

Queerama premieres at Sheffield Doc/Fest, Friday 9 June 2017 at Sheffield City Hall. Tickets are available for £12 at

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